About penalties (at the 2014 FIFA World Cup)

There were already many penalties during the ongoing 2014 FIFA World Cup at Brazil.

With the second round/knock-out stage around the corner, it seems possible that following matches will come to a conclusion with a penalty shoot-out.

As a consequence I have taken some time to scoop through the scientific literature about penalty taking in football. The first paragraph shows some information for the penalty taker, while the second parts deals with important considerations for the goalkeeper.

Considering that a penalty shot only needs about 0.2 to 0.6 seconds (4) for the 11 meters from the spot to the goal, the goalkeeper has very limited chance to react and jump to save the shoot, not even considering the reaction time.

As a result the goalkeeper need to start diving prior to the shot (however, needs to wait as long as possible) to not show the penalty taker the dive direction.

So what can the goalkeeper and the penalty taker do increase the chance of success?


Taking a penalty

picture taken from http://agentpalmer.com/1979/sports/indycar-could-learn-something-from-nascar-a-k-a-dont-finish-the-race-under-yellow/
picture taken from http://agentpalmer.com/1979/sports/indycar-could-learn-something-from-nascar-a-k-a-dont-finish-the-race-under-yellow/

Interestingly, and in general the anticipation of the goalkeeper to right-footed kicks was significantly better than that to left-footed kicks (11). Therefore a left footed kicker could be preferred choice (3). Furthermore, it seems that the goalkeeper has a preferred diving side (15). Information about that might help the penalty taker.

However, there seems to be two approaches to take a penalty: 1) the keeper-independent and 2) keeper-dependent strategy (16).

Keeper-independent: Choosing this strategy, the penalty taker selects a target location in advance disregarding the keepers action during the run-up.

Keeper-dependent: The penalty taker chooses a target location depending on the action of the goalkeeper movements during the run up, obviously the opposite side of the goalkeeper. This approach, and therefore a decreased time availability to alter kick direction, resulted in higher risk of not only incorrect but also inaccurate shot placement (16).

Goalkeeper tend to have the tendency for jumping (and not remaining at the center of the goal) as the feeling after a goal scored following inaction is worse compared to action/jumping for the keeper (1) and therefore might increase the chance for successful keeper-dependent strategies.

Taking a longer gaze might increase the chance to score, as it was seen to show the goalkeeper confidence prior to the penalty (7).


Defending a penalty - Goalkeepers

There seems to be multiple ways to increase the probability to save the penalty.

Reading cues: Goalkeepers showed that the the angle of approach to the ball, foot position at contact, and hip position at the time of foot-ball contact were used as the main cues to anticipate the shot (11). Especially the non-kicking leg seemed to show possible cues and the earliest reliable predictor of shot direction (6). Successful experts showed greater success in predicting penalty shots compared to non-experts, whith the difference of spending longer periods of time fixating on the non-kicking leg (14).

Distracting the penalty taker: It was suggested that participants were more distracted by a moving goalkeeper than a stationary one and struggled to disengage from a moving goalkeeper under situations of high threat (15, 17, 18).

Showing one side: It seems feasible for a goalkeeper to influence perceptions of area and consequently the direction of penalty kicks by standing marginally to one side or another of the goal center and the goalkeeper can then strategically dive to the side with greater area. A small displacement of 6 to 10 cm off center might be sufficient with the penalty taker no to be mindful of a displacement in this range, but is at least 10% more likely to direct the penalty kick to the side with greater area than to the side with smaller area (9).

If penalty takers take a “keeper-dependant” approach the keepers should minimize the movement prior the penalty taker reaching the ball. It seemed that 0.15 seconds before contact was sufficient to increase bad and wrong choices made by the penalty taker and also increasing the chances to save the penalty (16). Furthermore, it seems that successful keepers wait longer before initiating a response and were therefore more successful (14).



Obviously the mental aspect whilst taking a penalty is huge and probably even more important than skill and fatigue (8). Interestingly, only the physical presence of a goalkeeper decreases the chance of scoring (12). Furthermore, the general scoring probability decreases from 85% success rate in free play matches to 76% in shoot-outs (10), analysed from the 1982–1998 World Cups and the 1996 European Championships.


Despite the fact that not only “specialists” will have to take a penalty in the shoot out it seems important to approach a penalty with a positive attitude – scoring will make the team win, instead of not scoring will make the team loose (13). Furthermore, specialists also tend to decrease their probability to score in a shoot-out with increasing pressure as indicated, for example, by the presence of spectators and the importance of success (5). It seems that mental rehearsal may diminish psychological stress placed on the penalty taker (2).

The order of penalty takers in a shoot out should be in reverse order of ranking of the penalty takers – meaning the best penalty taker will shoot last (10). However in case of crucial penalties the order should be flexible if an appropriate situation appears in which the game can be ended at the 3rd or 4th penalty. Therefore it also seems favorable to use substitutions (who are good penalty takers) to influence penalty shoot out.



First of all (and it seems to simple to mention that), the ball needs to go on target, in order to be a goal, independent on the approach of the penalty taker.

Physical practice and even more importantly mental preparation can be key and might decide about winning and losing. Players should adopt a positive (scoring and winning) approach instead of avoiding loosing. I also assume the same is true for goalkeepers.

At the end there will always be a chance of good or bad luck as there are human beings involved and there are many variables that will be affected by the two players.



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case of penalty kicks. Journal of Economic Psychology. 28(5): 606-621, 2007.

2. Bar-Eli M, Friedman Z. Psychological stress in soccer: The case of penalty kick. Soccer Journal. 33:

49-52, 1988.

3. Baumann F, Friehe T, Wedow M. General ability and specialization: Evidence from penalty kicks in

soccer. Journal of Sports Economics. 12(1): 81-105, 2011.

4. Chiappori P-A, Levitt S, Groseclose T. Testing Mixed-Strategy Equilibria When Players Are

Heterogeneous: The Case of Penalty Kicks in Soccer. The American Economic Review. 92(4): 1138-1151, 2002.

5. Dohmen T. Do professionals choke under pressure? IZA Dicussion Paper. No 1905, 2005.

6. Franks IM, Harvey T. Cues for goalkeepers: High-tech methods used to measure penalty shot response.

Soccer Journal. 42: 30-38, 1997.

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gaze affect the impressions formed of them by opposing goalkeepers. J. Sports. Sci. 26(6): 569-576, 2008.

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stress, skill, and fatigue for kick outcomes. J. Sports. Sci. 25(2): 121-129, 2007.

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performance: How to succeed in a soccer penalty-shooting. Psychology of Sport and Exercise. 10: 108, 2009.

14. Savelsbergh GJ, Van der Kamp J, Williams AM, Ward P. Anticipation and visual search behaviour in

expert soccer goalkeepers. Ergonomics. 48(11-14): 1686-97, 2005.

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